Theresa May in pole position in Tory leadership race
HOME Secretary Theresa May has taken pole position in the race to succeed David Cameron as prime minister, securing a comfortable advantage over her four rivals with the backing of 165 Conservative MPs in the first round of voting.
Former defence secretary Liam Fox was eliminated from the contest after winning the support of just 16 MPs.
Work and pensions secretary Stephen Crabb has dropped out of the race and backed Mrs May.
Mrs May's tally amounted to exactly half of the 330 Conservative MPs, but was a majority of the 329 voting, guaranteeing her a place in the final run-off ballot of Conservative members unless she loses supporters to one of her rivals over the next few days.
Now attention turns to the battle for the second place on the ballot paper, with leading Brexit backer Andrea Leadsom taking 66 votes and Eurosceptic Justice Secretary Michael Gove 48. Work and Pensions Secretary Stephen Crabb had 34.
The three remaining contenders are due to face a second MPs' vote tomorrow.
The two candidates who top the final round of MPs' votes will go forward to a postal ballot of party members to select a new Conservative leader – and prime minister – in a contest due to end on September 9.
Welcoming her victory, Mrs May said: "I am pleased with this result, and very grateful to my colleagues for their support today.
"There is a big job before us: to unite our party and the country, to negotiate the best possible deal as we leave the EU, and to make Britain work for everyone.
"I am the only candidate capable of delivering these three things as prime minister, and tonight it is clear that I am also the only one capable of drawing support from the whole of the Conservative party.
"I look forward to continuing the debate about Britain's future – in Parliament and across the country."
Mrs May's dominant first-round performance and energy minister Mrs Leadsom's strong showing in second place will put intense pressure on Mr Gove to join Mr Crabb and stand aside and allow an all-woman run-off.
Despite her overwhelming support among MPs, Mrs May will be all too aware that in the two previous contests conducted under the present rules, initial frontrunners Kenneth Clarke and David Davis went on to be rejected by grass-roots members.
As a supporter of the Remain vote in last month's EU referendum, the home secretary is vulnerable to claims by Eurosceptic rivals that the largely Brexit-backing membership requires a leader who actively campaigned to Leave.
And she has faced criticism over her refusal to give firm assurances that European Union nationals would be allowed to remain in the UK and was accused by former Cabinet colleague Ken Clarke of being a "bloody difficult woman" with little knowledge of foreign policy.
In unguarded comments caught on camera by Sky News, Mr Clarke discussed the leadership candidates with fellow Tory veteran Sir Malcolm Rifkind, saying: "Theresa is a bloody difficult woman but you and I worked with Margaret Thatcher."
"I don't think either Andrea Leadsom or Boris Johnson actually are in favour of leaving the European Union."
The two Tory veterans were scathing about Mr Gove, with Sir Malcolm saying "I don't mind who wins as long as Gove comes third", while Mr Clarke warned if the hawkish justice secretary was in Number 10 "we'd go to war with at least three countries at once".
In a statement accepting his elimination, Dr Fox said: "I am very grateful to those colleagues who supported me in the ballot today.
"Naturally, I am disappointed not to progress further but I do not regret standing in this contest. I felt it was vital to stress the importance of national security in this debate and the need for a clear path to our exit from the European Union. I hope I have achieved both these objectives.
"I have also sought to stress the need for experience as the successful candidate will have to take up the reins of government in less than nine weeks. I will make a statement about my intentions in due course."
Cabinet minister Chris Grayling, who proposed Mrs May for leader, said: "This is a really big step in the right direction, but this is the first round and we've got a long way to go yet."
"The Conservative Party isn't electing a leader in opposition after losing a general election who can build up over five years and gain experience. We're electing somebody who's going to be our prime minister in two months' time, and that's why it's very important we have somebody with strong experience, who's good at working with the international community and can hit the ground running."
Mr Gove's proposer, Nicky Morgan, said he was winning the support of Leave campaigners who want a "heavyweight" representative in the race.
In an apparent swipe at Mrs Leadsom – who has never held Cabinet office – the education secretary said: "We need to put forward two heavyweights to our people in the country to make sure they get a really genuine choice between two quite different agendas."
Among Dr Fox's supporters, whose votes are now up for grabs, are "people who are obviously Brexiteers and they'll be looking to see who is the big serious Brexiteer in the race who can deliver the exit", she said.
Ms Morgan criticised Mrs Leadsom's performance at a Tory hustings event on Monday, saying she "struggled to get her message across to the audience".
Gove supporter Jacob Rees-Mogg told Sky News: "I think Michael has done extremely well from a standing start to get nearly 50 votes. This is a good result for him. He performed very well in the hustings and I think he is now recovering momentum from a rather late start. So I think it's very encouraging for him."
Backbencher Nadine Dorries, who backs Mrs Leadsom, said the energy minister outperformed expectations.
"I think it's an absolutely sterling result for who she is, just into her second year (as a minister)," Ms Dorries said. "I think it's a fantastic result, we're very pleased with 66. Personally I was expecting 54."